Randy Napoleon's new album Puppets. It is the latest collaboration with Napoleon and jazz musician Gregg Hill. "Puppet" is the title cut of the album of the same name and is a wonderful in-studio glimpse of how it was made. Recorded at Troubadour Recording Studio, Lansing Michigan
Puppetry is a performing art that dates back to Egypt as far back as 4,000 years ago. The use of puppets with puppets in front of attractive backgrounds was beyond entertainment. They expressed the feelings of their cultures, sometimes in the form of political statements, and inspired gestures of laughter, romance, lamentation, and even conflict.
This musical depiction of puppets in 2022 is drawn by Mid-Michigan musician Greg Hill, and performed by guitarist Randy Napoleon, vocalist Aubrey Johnson, and a stellar all-star jazz ensemble. In my opinion, it's Randy's attempt to continue his growth as one of the truly dominant players on his instrument anywhere. His dexterity, fluid ideas and command of a tricky tool should be recognized as a top drawer. She and Gregg are pulling the musical strings of these puppets.
Gregg Hill's music has been documented by bands led by bassist Rodney Whitaker, guitarist Alden Kelly, drummer Gaylin McKinney, and others. This recording shows the greater breadth and depth of Hill's compositions than previous efforts, and adds a vocal element, a more detailed chart with various instruments, not to mention stellar music. Known for his love of Latin jazz, this recording is a departure for Hill's earlier mentality.
Randy is someone I've known since he was a teenager. I heard him for the first time as a participant in the Heritage Jazz Contest. This annual event took place in Ypsilanti, Michigan during the annual Heritage Festival. The local jazz station sponsored the contest and I was the chief judge. The competition gave rise to many players who would go on to become professional musicians. When I first heard from him it was very clear that he had talent, and Randy was awarded a scholarship. Randy was born in Brooklyn and raised in Ann Arbor, Michigan by his wonderful parents Greg and Davy. After cutting his teeth in Detroit, he moved to modern jazz, the center of New York City. In 2014 he returned to Michigan to live as Michigan State University Professor of Jazz. It was here that she met Greg Hill, and the rest is history, which resulted in this effort.
Working with singers is nothing new for Randy, having had extensive time with pop star Michael Buble and the younger brother of the late jazz legend Freddie Cole, Nat "King" Cole. This recording is a worthy follow-up to their solid and acclaimed 2021 OA2 CD Rust Belt Roots, a tribute to Wes Montgomery, Grant Greene and Kenny Burrell. Randy has been quite the voice in small ensembles, organ combinations or even big bands. This reflects their versatility, willingness to be flexible and adaptable to the challenges of any situation.
Aubrey Johnson is a star in her own right. The NYC-based singer has done her part in teaching, performing and establishing her own wordless scat style that bridges the voices of Anita O'Day, Sheila Jordan, Jay Clayton and Gene Lee. This original music is challenging, melodious and forward-thinking. In this context Gregg Hill's music takes a contemporary context firmly rooted in modal, post-bop jazz and even blues. Pianist Rick Rowe is an Ann Arbor fixture leading his stellar trio, and his pure talent borders on astonishing. He has also worked with his share of singers. His mother, Betsy King, was a lead singer in her heyday. An expert in Thelonious Monk's music, Rick's play, listening skills, and dedication to teamwork are a key factor in the synergy and solid association of the group's identity. Bassist Rodney Whitaker and drummer Quincy Davis have their own extensive list of credentials as professional jazz musicians. From ensembles to soloists and soloists, they are the best in the business. I have known Rodney since he was a young Paul Chambers-influenced student and have been happy to call him a friend and colleague for decades. Seth Ebersol adds to the mix throughout the album with some delicious bass clarinet and flute work.
The music of this collective effort is remarkably consistent, yet diverse. The opener "Andes Lamente" is a melodious tone setter, only a brief entry into the program, a taste if you will. The "Fan-O-Gram" is actually a booster, a shot of fuel to energize the band with a hot bop. Will Crandell (drums) and Brandon Rose (bass) will fill in. Aubrey's wordless scatting along the guitar lines is combined with a wondrous solo from Randy.
"The Jazzdiddy Waltz" is purely bluesy, "Lyrica" has a nice easy feel and is a big feature for Rick, while "Moonscape" has Randy's arrangement expertise and some clever tandem lines.
The title track is a bit quirky, as you might expect, featuring lyrics written by Randy and sung succinctly, patiently and soulfully by Aubrey. I like "Still Life with Tuba" because it has the European feel of a la ECM, perhaps reflecting Norma Winstone with a low-end horn. "The Unknown Ballad" has its own mysterioso image. It has an excellent guitar solo and a deep emotional and musical range.
"Tone Colors" lives up to its title as Aubrey Chanel now as young Sheila Jordan, 93 years old. No small feat. She portrays Patsy Cline, another great take on the simple—but let down "Truck Drivers Blues." Closer, "Wide River", is a Randy/Aubrey duet that recounts both traditional and contemporary precepts.
Of course, the strings of the puppets can be easily cut, rendering the figures lying lifeless on the floor. These puppets are full of musical life for future live performances. He has many stories to tell on this fine recording for years to come.